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Tag: "labor"

Good Choices from Unions Past

[ 25 ] April 4, 2017 |

airstrikers

The Washington Post, October 24, 1980:

The executive board of the militant organization that represents the nation’s aerial traffic cops has endorsed Ronald Reagan for the presidency. Robert D. Poli, head of the 14,500-member Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, met with Reagan yesterday in Florida.

PATCO’s leaders charge that President Carter has mismanaged the federal civil service, and has ignored what the union says are serious safety problems that jeopardize the country’s air traffic control system.

PATCO is the exclusive bargaining agent for all 17,000 controllers. It is considered one of the most aggressive of all government unions. Federal Aviation Administration brass have charged that PATCO is preparing for a strike next year during the big Easter vacation travel period. FAA cited a 110-page memo — which it calls a “blueprint” on how to run a strike — that PATCO sent regional officials earlier this year. Details of the memo were outlined here Oct. 5. Strikes against the government are illegal. PATCO members in the past have been involved in work-to-rule actions and sick-outs that slowed air traffic.

The union says controllers are over-worked and underpaid, and that the administration has let safety equipment deteriorate to dangerous levels. Poli charged that Carter had “consistently denigrated federal employes” and supported plans to cut back on retirement benefits for U.S. workers. Reagan says he opposes the White House plan to eliminate one of the two cost-of-living raises that federal and military retirees get. Poli said PATCO’s nin-member board, which endorsed Reagan unanimously, has been assured that the California governor would provide the best leadership for federal workers, and improve the state of the air traffic control system.”

The best leadership. Good choice guys. Good choice.

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This Day in Labor History: April 2, 1937

[ 13 ] April 2, 2017 |

1-2-113F-25-ExplorePAHistory-a0k7l1-a_349

On April 2, 1937, workers at the Hershey Chocolate Corporation in Hershey, Pennsylvania sat down on the job. Following the lead of the General Motors workers in Flint, Michigan a few months earlier, these workers demanded the company live up to the contract it had recently signed. Unlike that previous struggle however, Hershey would respond with violence, demonstrating the limitations of the tactic.

Milton Hershey founded his chocolate company in 1894. He, like many capitalists of the era, decided to construct a company town, of course named after himself. This he did in southeastern Pennsylvania. A bit like Henry Ford, he was worried about the terrible conditions of the cities and so wanted a nice-looking town for his employees. He even built an amusement park in 1907 for them. He was an early adopter of the welfare capitalism that would come to prominence in American industry during the 1920s. But while this was all better than living under the smokestacks in a steel mill, the point of a company town is to control workers and that was certainly the case for Hershey as well, just as it was for his contemporary George Pullman. Personal relationships meant everything when it came to hiring and firing, causing great resentment among workers. And Hershey worked them hard, up to 60 hours a week as late as the 1920s. When the Great Depression began, he reduced them to 40 hours and of course reduced their pay as well, although he tried to avoid layoffs. During the early 1930s, he spent up to $10 million building nice buildings in his company town while his workers faced dire poverty.

Near the end of 1936, workers began to organize. They created a newspaper called “The Chocolate Bar-B” that expressed their discontent and spread it around the factory. It was produced by workers at the factory who had converted to the communist cause and wanted workers to unionize over issues of long hours, low wages, and terrible workplace conditions, especially noise and heat in the factory. By January 1937, with the industrial organizing of the newly formed CIO coming more into the open, CIO organizers met secretly with Hershey workers. They immediately formed the United Chocolate Workers and soon had hundreds of members, with about 80% of the workforce joining. At first it looked like Hershey would cave. When they came to him, he immediately said he would raise wages to 60 cents an hour for men and 45 cents an hour for women and they came to initial agreement in March. But as part of that agreement, union organizers were not supposed to be fired.

Hershey had second thoughts about that. Claiming declining business required layoffs, he fired the organizers, which violated the seniority agreement in the new contract. On April 2, union president Red “Bull” Behman waved a red handkerchief to start the strike. The workers inside copied the tactics now becoming common in CIO organizing campaigns: they sat down on the job. About 1200 workers were involved. They did not want this to be a radical action that would destroy property. They set up cameras to make sure that no property was damaged and they banned smoking in the factory to be sure nothing burned. But there were problems from the beginning. The strike was not competently run and the strikers had to sit-down in shifts of 400, meaning the factory actually stayed open. The strikers were also indifferent to the 240,000 quarters that would spoil, creating immediate divisions between the strikers and the local farmers supplying that milk, a rare localism in supply chains, even at this time.

By this point, Hershey himself was in semi-retirement and company president William Murrie was more of a hard-liner. He rallied the local farmers who were losing money by not selling their milk to Hershey, their only market. He started holding rallies in nearby towns to build opposition to the union. They created a mob to attack the factory and physically remove the strikers. Along with some workers loyal to the company, on April 8, they attacked the sit-down strikers. This may have happened semi-spontaneously at it seems that Behman and Murrie had already agreed to end the occupation. In any case, outnumbering the strikers inside about 4:1, they grabbed bats and bricks and started beating the strike leaders. By the end of the day, about 1000 workers had signed an anti-union loyalty pledge, some because of fear but some because they were genuinely disgusted by the CIO tactics.

This led to an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board, which forced Hershey to hold a union election. The creation of the NLRB cannot be overstated in its importance. In the past, Hershey would have simply fired all the organizers at this point and used violence to ensure their factory stayed union-free. Now, the government made sure an election would be held while taking no position on the sit-down strike, a tactic the Roosevelt administration was distinctly uncomfortable with. Intimidating the workers after the violence, the company ensure that a quasi-company union would win, a tactic used by a lot of employers in 1937 until the National Labor Relations Act was declared constitutional, which had banned company unions. The NLRB threw this election out and ordered a new one held. In 1939, that election happened and the workers chose the AFL-affiliated Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union. The company union was dead in the town but so was the CIO, and this was not by intimidation but rather by the poorly planned sit-down strike and failed organizing efforts after the strike ended. The CIO had misjudged the sit-down strikes’ popularity and the moderate tone taken by Pennsylvania governor George Earle’s to it led to the destruction of his political career and his resounding defeat in a Senate run in 1938. The new governor, the Republican Arthur James, immediately signed a law banning sit-down strikes when he took office in 1939. Finally, Hershey came to an agreement with the BCW, making it one of the first candy companies to be unionized. Old Milton Hershey himself was devastated, seeing his industrial utopia destroyed by strife he hoped to avoid through never allowing workers a voice on the job.

The sit-down strike declined precipitously after the Hershey failure. Even by the end of 1937, it was rarely used. These proved not only tremendously difficult to pull off, but also deeply alienating to the general public in this conservative nation. Workers themselves were rarely united around the issue and the early victories at Flint and other factories could not be replicated elsewhere.

I borrowed from Robert Weir, “Dark Chocolate: Lessons from the 1937 Hershey Sit-Down Strike,” published in Labor History’s January 2015 issue in the writing of this post.

This is the 216th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: April 1, 1929

[ 12 ] April 1, 2017 |

Actual photo from the 1929 Loray Mill Strike.

On April 1, 1929, textile workers at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina went on strike. This strike was brutally suppressed by the mill owners who had moved production to the South precisely to avoid unionism and because they felt they could count on loyal politicians and law enforcement if workers did strike. The workers themselves did not win the strike, but this was a critical moment in the rise of textile worker unionism that would help define labor history in the 1930s.

As early as the 1890s, apparel factories began moving to the South to escape unions. This increased dramatically after the Uprising of the 20,000, the Triangle Fire, the Lawrence strike, the Paterson strike, and other many other periods of workplace organizing, forcing them to change their methods in New York and New England. They found compliant workers in the hills of Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. They wanted a workforce that lacked immigrants or a history of socialism. They found a region that was riven by racial tension, deeply under the influence of fundamentalist evangelicalism (and the anti-Semitism that went with it that would help with resistance to Jewish organizers coming South), a history of paternalism, and poverty. Southern Appalachia was perfect. By the 1910s, there were tens of thousands of southern Appalachians laboring in newly opened textile mills.

Mills opened up in large numbers during World War I, but in the postwar economic slump hurt workers bad. Like farmers producing food, they were promised continued prosperity and spent accordingly, in this case buying consumer items that were hardly luxurious by New York standards, but which required credit lines for these poor workers. Then the hard times came and the workers found themselves tumbling back into poverty. Wages were reduced and work became harder to find. Moreover, the mill owners decided to maximize the production of each worker. They did so through what is called the stretch-out. This was an attempt to make up for lost profits by forcing workers to work up to twice at hard. One worker recalled working 48 looms before the stretch-out and 90 after it was implemented. To make this happen, workers lost their breaks, owners shifted to paying workers at piece rate instead of wages, and they also increasing the number of supervisors to work the employees like slaves. Moreover, all of this was for no additional money. The individual noted above who now worked 90 looms complained that he made $19 a week in 1926 and $17.70 in 1929, despite the huge increase in his production.

This infuriated workers. These were not people inclined to unionization, but as their rights and their lives were crushed, they began to change their minds. This also got the attention of unions based in the north. The National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) was a communist-led union that saw potential for organizing the South. Seeing the rapid exploitation and anger of the workers, it decided to focus on the Carolina mills. It sent an organizer named Fred Beal to Gastonia and he walked into a powder keg. On March 30, 1929, the NWTU held its first public meeting in Gastonia. Attending it was Ellen Dawson, NWTU vice-president, Scottish immigrant, and a long-time communist organizer who had been involved in several major textile strikes in the 1920s in northern cities such as New Bedford and Passaic and who would evidently die from the damage to her lungs from working in the textile mills. Dawson gave an inspirational speech that motivated the workers to strike, which they officially announced that day.

The next day, 1800 workers walked off the job at the Loray Mill. They wanted a 40-hour week, $20 a week as a minimum wage, union recognition, and, most important, the abolition of the stretch out. The mill owners were absolutely incensed that their workers would form a union. The first step they took was throwing them all out of its company housing, a common tactic in small mill towns and mining villages that kept employer control over workers tight. The town’s mayor immediately asked for National Guard intervention, which the government was happy to provide. The strike continued but the anti-strike forces became more violent. On April 18, 100 masked men destroyed NTWU headquarters.

Scabs began to enter the mill and the strike seemed lost. They continued to hold on. But on June 7, as 150 strikers went to the mill to try and get the night shift to walk off the job, the police decided to bust the strike once and for all. They were attacked by the police, who then went to the strikers’ camp and demanded that the camp guards hand over their weapons. A fight began and the police chief was killed.

71 strikers were arrested in the aftermath of the violence. Eight strikers and Beal were indicted for the murder of the police chief. During the trial, with the strike continuing, a juror went insane and the judge had to declare a mistrial. This set the forces of order off in a violent spasm to crush this workers’ movement. A vigilante movement called the Committee of One Hundred roamed the countryside, seeking out strikers. By early September, mobs were rounding up strikers and kicking them out of the county. On September 14, a mob opened fire on a truck full of strikers. A pregnant woman named Ella Mae Wiggins was murdered. She was a strike leader and songwriter whose songs became rallying cries for the union. Woody Guthrie later called Wiggins “the pioneer of the protest ballad.” This murder effectively ended the strike, as the workers could go no farther.

In the retrial for the killing of the police chief, the judge found seven men guilty of second-degree murder, six strikers and Fred Beal, who received a sentence of 17-20 years in prison. Beal then fled to the Soviet Union, but hating life there and horrified by the lack of freedom Soviet workers had, returned to the U.S. He surrendered to North Carolina authorities in 1938, where he was later pardoned in 1942. He died in 1954, spending his later years working as an anti-communist unionist.

But while Gastonia was incredibly violent, other textile workers in the South managed to win some strikes in 1929. These strikes were strictly about ending the stretch-out. Workers in South Carolina organized while also avoiding unions, appealing to local people as insiders, to win these gains. The owners tried to argue that the stretch-out was “progress,” but the workers won. Alabama, which had the strongest labor movement in the South, saw its unions become strong enough that politicians actively sought their endorsement. United Textile Workers, a union that would come out of this and other strikes along the east coast, had locals in Georgia and Alabama grow quickly after 1929. The Depression would deeply challenge any gains the workers had won in the stretch-out and made their living incredibly precarious, but despite the continued and very real southern white workers’ antipathy for and fear of unions, the UTW would form in the aftermath and would continue to have a presence up to the point of the famed 1934 textile strike.

To say the least, the brutality of the apparel industry has not diminished to the present. It has simply moved out of the United States. The workers of Bangladesh labor under a system not too different from that of a century ago in the United States, still producing your clothing under disastrously exploitative conditions.

I borrowed from Janet Irons, Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South, to write this post.

This is the 215th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 29, 1951

[ 54 ] March 29, 2017 |

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On March 29, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of treason for passing classified information to the Soviet Union. A few days later they were sentenced to death. This famous case has of course received a tremendous amount of attention; for this series, it’s useful both as a window into the legacy of the New York-based and largely Jewish radicalism that shaped much of the left in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as to place them in the context of the broader attack on left-wing of the labor movement during these years.

Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg came out of the leftist Jewish tradition extending back into the late 19th century. He was born in New York in 1918, she also in New York in 1915. The both became members of the Young Communist League in the mid-1930s, as was far from uncommon in those days where democracy seemed to be dying and communism was the only hope for the left. They married in 1939. Both had significant union backgrounds. In 1932, Ethel led a strike at a shipping company where she worked, fighting for better wages. In 1935, she led another strike that included the blocking of the entrance to her company’s warehouse with 150 women workers. She was fired, but the National Labor Relations Board ordered she be rehired. All of this helped create the Ladies’ Apparel Shipping Clerks Union. Julius studied to be an engineer, but came from a staunchly union background. His father was a union representative in the sweatshops and apparel industry of New York. They were committed communists who sought to extend the revolution of workers’ rights under a socialist government to the United States. These were the children of the Clara Lemlich and Triangle Fire generation. They brought that same passion and organizing for workers’ rights to a new generation, one shaped by the rise and success of the Soviet Union.

During World War II, Julius worked at the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories until it was revealed he was a communist. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, worked at Los Alamos. Julius was running a spy ring for the Soviet Union, believing that military information needed to be shared to ensure peace after the war. He and his comrades managed to take photographic copies of documents concerning a wide number of major military projects, including a complete set of prints and production designs for the first jet planes. Greenglass was providing some information from his position at Los Alamos, though as a machinist, he did not have access to much of the really highly valuable information.

After the war, Julius and Greenglass ran their own machinist shop briefly but it fell apart, causing some tension between the two men. When Klaus Fuchs got busted for spying for the Soviet Union, he named names to hopefully reduce his sentence. This led the government to David Greenglass. When Greenglass was caught, he then testified that it was Julius Rosenberg who introduced him to the spy ring. Rosenberg was arrested. So was Ethel, although there was no evidence that she was involved. The government hoped to use her to pressure Julius into revealing everything. She denied everything on the witness stand, including any knowledge of her husband or brother’s activities. She may well have been lying and later studies have suggested she was. But the government didn’t have any evidence to convict her. This did not stop them. After all, the co-prosecuting attorney was one Roy Cohn, who later bragged that he was responsible for them getting the death penalty. The prosecution went full atomic scare, claiming that Greenglass had given the Soviets the secret to the atomic bomb, which is not really supported by the evidence. Atomic scientists said that Greenglass’ supposed sketch of an atomic bomb was worthless and Greenglass himself was highly inconsistent in his testimony. The trial was a complete farce, even if they were both probably guilty. Both Julius and Ethel were convicted and were sentenced to death. They were executed on June 19, 1953. Ethel’s was botched and they had to keep applying shocks through the electric chair. By the time she was declared dead, smoke was rising from her head.

Despite this famous case though, the communists in the labor movement were hardly a threat to the United States. Were there communists in the labor movement? Of course there were. They had played critical roles in the CIO’s organizing campaigns. By the late 1940s, the CIO was ready to get rid of these people for a number of reasons. There’s no question now, after decades of leftist historians dying it, that the CP-led unions and their organizers were following Moscow’s dictates, often alienating non-communist workers who could see through their inconsistency and constantly shifting positions to conform with the Soviets like a thin soup. There’s also no question that the communist issue also split unions, with non-communist members writing in to HUAC, asking for the communists to be investigated and eliminated. The question of communism in the labor movement during the postwar period is much harder and thornier than either anti-communist zealots or the modern left want to admit. Kicking out the communists was both an anti-democratic and anti-left move and was probably necessary for the industrial unions to survive the Cold War. It took away many of the best organizers, but those organizers had often worn out their welcome anyway and I am hesitant of arguments often made that this doomed the labor movement to its staid state of the post-1955 merger of the AFL and CIO. On the other hand, the loss of those good organizers was not replaced with some new generation of hard-core organizers and organizing fell off considerably after around 1950.

But in any case, most of these communists in the labor movement, including the Rosenbergs, genuinely thought they were doing the best thing they could for humanity in a global movement that would bring equality and freedom to the masses. You might argue that after 1939, only someone blind to reality could believe that. And maybe you are right. But I think when looking at people like the Rosenbergs, or the communists in the midcentury left generally, it’s useful to think of them in their own terms. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. But it does mean that the same desire for freedom that led them to create the modern labor movement and the greatest victories in the history of American workers is the same that led them to give secrets to Joseph Stalin. Such were the complexities of the time.

This is the 214th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 28, 1959

[ 5 ] March 28, 2017 |

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On March 28, 1959, railroad worker union leaders in Mexico that threatened to shut down the nation were arrested. The government crack down, its firing thousands of workers and arrest of many more demonstrates how the PRI government in Mexico would reject militancy in the labor movement and how this once revolutionary government had now entered its own Cold War phase.

Mexican railroad workers were significantly underpaid by the late 1950s and the nation had entered a period of inflation. The Mexican rail workers union, Sindicato de Trabajadores Ferrocarrileros de la República Mexicana (STFRM) created a price study committee to determine proper wages for its members. They demanded an increase of 350 pesos ($28) a month. When the government rejected this, offering an increase of 200 pesos ($16) a month, the path was laid for an increasingly bitter series of labor actions that resulted in one of the most important events in Mexican labor history. This union had been an independent union in the 1940s but by the 1950s was heavily co-opted by the PRI, the institutionalized revolutionary government of Mexico that theoretically made unions central to the state but in reality had made them adjuncts of state policy that did not represent workers. Moreover, railroad workers were a hugely important part of the Mexican labor movement and Mexican workers had played a leading role in starting the Mexican Revolution. As late as the 1950s, trains were a major mode of transportation in Mexico. Even today, public transportation is enormously important there, especially in rural Mexico, although today this is predominantly bus travel.

The first of the strikes began on June 26, 1958 in Oaxaca. Led by Demeterio Vallejo, a long-time union leader and one-time communist who had been active in the Mexican labor movement since the late 1920s, the workers began their actions with short strikes, usually only about 2 hours. Vallejo’s actions were not just about the wages. They were also about retaking control of the union from the officials handpicked by the government since 1948 and who had worked with the PRI to keep freight rates low by freezing wages. Vallejo’s newly invigorated workers escalated the length of their walkouts over the next few days, reaching 8 hours, before finally calling for a full-fledged strike. 60,000 workers participated in the first 2-hour strike. By the June 28 8-hour strike, Vallejo’s rail workers were joined by petroleum workers, teachers, and students. At this point president Adolpho Ruiz Cortines stepped in and offered a 215 peso raise. That was accepted and it seemed like this strike would end quickly. However, on July 12, the Railroad Workers Union elected Vallejo general secretary of the National Railroad Council, in no small part because he was angry about the Ruiz Cortines agreement that gave them such a small raise. He rode that rank and file anger to a victory. The companies refused to accept this and neither did the government, who wanted a less radical union leader in a system where the ruling PRI had incorporated unions into its government structure. Once again, the union went on strike and forced the government to cave.

They then sought to build on these two victories to demand much more. They wanted their pay raise based on the principle of a 6-day pay week instead of a 7-day pay week, thus raising their overall pay by 16% instead of 14% and wanted it applied retroactively to Ruiz Cortines’ intervention. They also wanted a housing allowance of 10% or a government housing plan for railroad workers. Finally, they wanted a limitation on loans from U.S. companies that was taking up too much of the railroad’s finances and thus getting in the way of pay raises for workers. By this time as well, a new president had taken office in Mexico. Adolfo López Mateos was seen as a possible return to a more populist and left-leaning Mexico by many disappointed with the conservative, corrupt statism of the PRI since Cardenas. Alas, they were to be bitterly disillusioned by the new administration.

Contract negotiations stalled and the 1-year contract agreed to in 1958 expired. Vallejo and his union became national pariahs in the media, but they pressed ahead with their strike, which started on February 25, 1959. This strike lasted less than a day, as the company agreed to the 16% raise, free medical care for workers’ families, and a government housing program. But the contract was not equal for all rail workers as some lines were left out. This led Vallejo to once again call a strike that would commence on March 25. The union chose that date specifically because it was Holy Week. With Easter on March 29, this maximized their leverage because people could not travel to see their families on this critical Mexican holiday. But this was too much for the López Mateos government. It declared the strike illegal. The military took over the rail stations. Army telegraphers scabbed on the striking rail telegraphers. The police busted the doors of workers, pulled their guns on them, and forced the to work at gunpoint. The military arrested Vallejo and thousands of workers. This actually filled the available prisons and many of the workers were sent to military camps. Throughout all of this, the workers grounded their demands in the language of the 1917 Constitution that is the fundamental document of the Mexican Revolution. But for the government, even this reeked of radicalism in a Cold War world where PRI leaders now feared leftist organizing as opposed to welcoming it, as it had done a mere 20 years earlier.

Vallejo was found guilty of sedition and given a 16-year prison sentence. The government replaced Vallejo and his followers with hand-chosen union leaders who would cooperate. The new contract remained and the lives of average workers improved, but union militancy in Mexico would be crushed by the PRI, which valued control and power over the unions brought into the government over its supposed revolutionary ideology. The state was the revolution and the revolution was the state. Vallejo remained in jail for 11 years and became a major cause for students in the 1968 movement. That fateful year saw the greatest suppression of labor and civil rights in modern Mexican history, most notoriously with the Tlateloco Massacre just outside of Mexico City, where the government murdered protesting students. This combined with guerillas fighting for dignity in the rural state of Guerrero set off Mexico’s Dirty War, a spasm of state violence that it has never really recovered from. The ultimate betrayal of Mexican democracy culminated in 1968 but it started in 1959.

I borrowed from Robert Alegre, Railroad Radicals in Cold War Mexico: Gender, Class, and Memory, in the writing of this post.

This is the 213th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Happy Triangle Day!

[ 30 ] March 25, 2017 |

TriangleFire_25March1911_BodiesOnSidewalk

Triangle Fire Day is such a happy time. Good thing we have learned so much and we treat our workers with respect, allow them to work in safe workplaces, give them a voice on the job, and generally allow them to live a dignified life, unlike those savage times of the past.

“The supply chain isn’t going just to Bangladesh. It’s going to Alabama and Georgia,” says David Michaels, who ran OSHA for the last seven years of the Obama administration. Safety at the Southern car factories themselves is generally good, he says. The situation is much worse at parts suppliers, where workers earn about 70¢ for every dollar earned by auto parts workers in Michigan, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Many plants in the North are unionized; only a few are in the South.)

Cordney Crutcher has known both environments. In 2013 he lost his left pinkie while operating a metal press at Matsu Alabama, a parts maker in Huntsville owned by Matcor-Matsu Group Inc. of Brampton, Ont. Crutcher was leaving work for the day when a supervisor summoned him to replace a slower worker on the line, because the plant had fallen 40 parts behind schedule for a shipment to Honda Motor Co. He’d already worked 12 hours, Crutcher says, and wanted to go home, “but he said they really needed me.” He was put on a press that had been acting up all day. It worked fine until he was 10 parts away from finishing, and then a cast-iron hole puncher failed to deploy. Crutcher didn’t realize it. Suddenly the puncher fired and snapped on his finger. “I saw my meat sticking out of the bottom of my glove,” he says.

Now Crutcher, 42, commutes an hour to the General Motors Co. assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., where he’s a member of United Auto Workers. “They teach you the right way,” he says. “They don’t throw you to the wolves.” His pay rose from $12 an hour at Matsu to $18.21 at GM.

In 2014, OSHA’s Atlanta office, after detecting a high number of safety violations at the region’s parts suppliers, launched a crackdown. The agency cited one year, 2010, when workers in Alabama parts plants had a 50 percent higher rate of illness and injury than the U.S. auto parts industry as a whole. That gap has narrowed, but the incidence of traumatic injuries in Alabama’s auto parts plants remains 9 percent higher than in Michigan’s and 8 percent higher than in Ohio’s. In 2015 the chances of losing a finger or limb in an Alabama parts factory was double the amputation risk nationally for the industry, 65 percent higher than in Michigan and 33 percent above the rate in Ohio.

Korean-owned plants, which make up roughly a quarter of parts suppliers in Alabama, have the most safety violations in the state, accounting for 36 percent of all infractions and 52 percent of total fines, from 2012 to 2016. The U.S. is second, with 23 percent of violations and 17 percent of fines, and Germany is third, with 15 percent and 11 percent. But serious accidents occur in plants from all over, according to more than 3,000 pages of court documents and OSHA investigative files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Feel the Freedom!

This Day in Labor History: March 24, 1934

[ 25 ] March 24, 2017 |

farmworkers-at-tomato-harvest-1930

On March 24, 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Tydings-McDuffie Act. Better known as the Philippine Independence Act, Tydings-McDuffie initially sounds like a victory for anti-colonialist forces. However, a look at the history of law demonstrates that it actually came out of the deep anti-Asian racism of the West Coast who saw Asian populations both as competition for white labor and competition for white women.

From the beginning of Anglo-American occupation in California, white workers defined the state as a white man’s republic. This was basically repeated in Oregon and Washington. And yet from the very beginning, the polyglot population of the region challenged those assumptions. The arrival of Mexicans and Chinese along with whites into California freaked out the white population, which quickly sought to take over the diggings. The Chinese were pushed into menial labor, as well as the most difficult and dangerous labor, such as railroad building. White workers saw these workers as a direct threat, committed murderous violence against them, and lobbied for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major legislative victory for unions in American history. But California employers continued their search for cheap labor, turning to the Japanese. But the same anti-Asian sentiment rose up against the Japanese, especially as these workers began organizing as well, and the Gentlemen’s Agreement cut that labor off in 1907. But western employers now had a new source of labor: Filipinos. This was much more difficult for anti-Asian zealots to organize against, for Filipinos had the right to immigrate as colonial subjects of the United States since the 1898-1902 war of subjugation.

By the 1920s, Filipino immigration to California expanded rapidly, with over 24,000 coming between 1925 and 1929, mostly young men to work in the fields. In response, the San Francisco Chronicle editorialized, “There is a serious immigration problem involved in the introduction of large numbers of person who are unassimilable yet who are given a statue little short of full citizenship.” They lived in the same terrible camps that other workers suffered through in the fields, with housing that was basically chicken coops. The growers liked them because they worked hard and made little trouble on the farms. But the new arrival of non-whites infuriated many Californians. To make it worse for white Californians, many Filipino men, and men made up 94% of the migrants, ended up having sexual relationships with white women. This was not what their cheap, exploitable labor was supposed to do. Said Fred Hart, a farmer from Salinas, “The Filipinos will not leave our white girls alone…Frequently they intermarry.” That these new workers had status as Americans made their brazenness even more outrageous for white California.

So whites did what whites do so frequently in American history–they turned to violence against the people who color who dared stand up for human rights and labor rights. On January 21, 1930, about two hundred white Californians tried to raid a Filipino-owned club near Monterey where nine white women worked as entertainers. The mob expanded to about 500 people and the next night they started attacking Filipinos they found on the streets and in the orchards. On January 23, the mob killed a farmworker named Fermin Tobera, who had come to California in 1928 to work in the fields and send money back to his impoverished family. The bunkhouse in which he slept on the Murphy Ranch near Watsonville was set upon by whites who started firing into it. Tobera was shot in the head. This outraged the Filipino community working for the rights of their people in Washington, as well as Filipinos in Manila. Other violent incidents popped up around California over the next couple of days, leading to beating and a stabbing. On January 29, someone blew up the Stockton headquarters of the Filipino Federation of America. Although several people were sleeping inside, no one was killed. Given the trans-Pacific anger this violence caused, California law enforcement had to do something. Eight men pleaded guilty for incitement to riot; four of them served thirty days in prison and the rest of the sentences for all of them were suspended.

This violence is the context in which the U.S. considered granting the Filipinos their independence. Both supporters and opponents of Filipino migration to the U.S. thought independence was probably the best solution by the early 1930s. The Watsonville Evening Pajaronian editorialized that it hoped the Philippines would get their independence so Japan would invade them and turn them into a new Korea. Given the rapidly growing availability of white labor as the Great Depression deepened, the California growers wouldn’t struggle to find a new labor force either.

The law itself granted the Philippines independence after ten years. In exchange, Filipinos would have to abide by the racist immigration quota system of the 1924 Immigration Act immediately. A whopping 50 immigrants from the Philippines a year were allowed into the United States. They were also denied citizenship rights. A 1946 law, the same year that the Philippines actually received independence, doubled the quota to a whole 100 immigrants and restored the ability of Filipinos to become citizens. A year after Tydings-McDuffie, Congress passed the Filipino Repatriation Act that provided free transportation for Filipinos who wanted to return to the islands but could not afford to do so. The nation didn’t quite get to the point of rounding up these workers, but they can awfully close.

In conclusion, the United States was actually too racist and too concerned about interracial sex to remain a colonial power.

Of course, Filipino labor did not disappear from the United States after Tydings-McDuffie, even as new immigration did. These workers would play a critical role in the early farmworker movements that eventually led to the United Farm Workers, even as Latino workers supplanted the Filipinos in the movement.

I borrowed from Dorothy B. Fujita-Rony, “Empire and the Moving Body: Fermin Tobera, Military California, and Rural Space,” in Bender and Lipman, Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism in the writing of this post.

This is the 212th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Feminism and Class at Harvard

[ 179 ] March 21, 2017 |

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This is an outstanding essay about the class divisions within feminism, using Harvard as a background. Sarah Leonard and Rebecca Rojer note that both famed Harvard graduate Sheryl Sandberg and Harvard president and historian Drew Gilpin Faust talk about feminism but neither of them cares at all about the 90 percent female workforce at the Doubletree that Harvard owns in Cambridge. Noting how the workers and their student allies had to fight for years to finally win a union while Sandberg spoke repeatedly to rich women at the school and Faust has done everything in her power to hurt the school’s workers, the essay gets at a critical issue in feminism: a feminism that only speaks to rich white women really isn’t a feminism at all.

 What the majority of women want has, in many ways, not changed—economic security, good and accessible childcare, freedom from violence, the pleasures of life with enough education and leisure time to allow us to flourish. But intractable problems remain: Pregnancy is penalized by lack of time off, or time off for women but not for men, which exacerbates the wage gap. Childcare has been deemed unaffordable by the Department of Health and Human Services in every single state. Ninety-eight percent of women in abusive relationships are subject to financial abuse, and a woman without an income has a hard time getting away—a topic that was the subject of Sandberg’s own undergraduate thesis, “Economic Factors and Intimate Violence.” Luckily, we actually know quite a bit about how to fix these things. In Sweden, women and men are motivated to take parental time off (if the man doesn’t take his time, they both lose some), ensuring family time and a smaller wage gap. We know that universal childcare, as organized in Norway, produces happy kids and greater gender equity. In fact, America almost had something comparable in 1971, when a bill for universal childcare passed both houses, only to be vetoed by Nixon under the influence of a young Pat Buchanan.

Lobbying for universal childcare, unionization, or any of the other things we know help most women would mean making enemies in a way that advocating for “empowerment” or “banning bossy” never would. It would mean a fight not just with Republicans (Sandberg gives money mostly to Democrats, although she has paid into Olympia’s List and Facebook’s PAC, both of which have supported several Republicans), but with Democrats, too, and maybe even some of Sandberg’s pals on the Davos circuit. It would mean being political, and it would not serve her as PR. It would not help Facebook. But it would place her considerable resources in the service of women. Without solidaristic feminism, in the words of Osorio, “you haven’t solved the problem. You’ve just solved your problem.”

When I asked Lemus what she would have Sandberg do, she offered that Sandberg had enough money to make the government listen to the needs of women. Osorio noted that Sandberg might listen to women who are unlike her. The problem is not that women like Sandberg and Faust have failed to be saviors; as the DoubleTree workers have shown, working-class women are leading their own movements and stand at the head of their own struggles. It’s that women like the DoubleTree housekeepers are doing the concrete work of increasing equality, and women like Faust and Sandberg are thwarting instead of helping them. It is possible for a woman to sound like a feminist, and serve the function of The Man. We don’t need them to lead us, but if they aren’t going to express solidarity, they can at least get out of the way.

That’s the conclusion but the whole thing is really well worth your time. I will also say that Faust is an embarrassment to the reputation of historians. Faust herself works on issues of justice in her writing and yet has sold out all the way. I really struggle to understand how you can know everything she knows and then want to treat pregnant hotel workers or impoverished dining hall workers in this way. I guess that’s why I will never climb the corporate ladder.

The Republican War on Workers: Iowa Edition

[ 105 ] March 21, 2017 |

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Colin Gordon has an excellent if depressing summary of the horrors Iowa Republicans have pushed through this year, which has included an anti-union bill that makes Scott Walker look like a piker and the repeal of local ability to set wages or other progressive standards. The state’s workers comp system is next. Why? Because unions support Democrats.

In this sense, ALEC is accelerating the “risk shift” brought about by the growth of precarious employment and the fraying of the social safety net. The assault on workers’ compensation in Iowa, for example, is animated not by “out of control” claims and costs but by a desire to further shift the burden from employers onto the backs of injured workers and taxpayers, as uncompensated claims end up on the balance sheets of Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid. The prohibition on bargaining over health care, in turn, is widely regarded as the first step in the state’s retreat from offering any meaningful health coverage via public employment.

The final, and perhaps decisive, motive for Iowa Republicans is starkly political. The peculiar enmity for public-sector workers and their unions is less about fiscal constraint than it is about their critical role in the Democratic Party. The state’s largest public-sector unions (AFSCME and ISEA, the teachers’ union) contributed nearly $1 million to Democrats in the 2016 cycle. The collective-bargaining law (especially the dues and recertification provisions) is simply meant to turn off that faucet. This is what has played out in Wisconsin, where public sector unions have lost almost half their members (from 175,000 in 2010 to 91,000 in 2016): AFSCME has retreated to a single statewide council, and political contributions—and energies—have withered. The icing on this cake, unsurprisingly, is a new voter-ID law whose burden would fall largely on Democratic supporters.

Some in the statehouse may genuinely believe that this path makes sense for Iowa, but the evidence suggests otherwise. This is a frighteningly destructive agenda, virtually guaranteed—as we have seen play out in Kansas and in Wisconsin—to undermine the prosperity, security, and mobility of most Iowans. State Republicans and ALEC know this, which is why they’ve made sure to pair their economic agenda with measures designed to defang and defund their political opponents. The warm epigram from Field of Dreams—“It’s not heaven, it’s Iowa”—now sounds like a cruel joke.

This is of course the national Republican agenda and there’s a very real chance much of this goes nationwide by 2020.

Unionize Uber

[ 36 ] March 19, 2017 |

Uber

Great news out of Seattle:

A judge in Washington State has rejected Uber’s attempt to overturn a Seattle ordinance that gives its drivers the right to unionize, potentially opening the door for higher rates and labor costs. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Teamsters labor union intends to begin working to organize drivers soon.

The legal battle over the rule, which originally passed in December of 2015, has been lengthy. Last August, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce business group seeking the rule’s suspension.

Gee, you wouldn’t want to frame this “potentially opening the door to dignified lives for workers” or anything. Of course, this is from Fortune, magazine of the New Gilded Age. Anyway:

Uber has extensively lobbied its own drivers to oppose unionization. The company says the rule could impinge on drivers’ flexibility, and has previously protested a provision that would give voting rights on the unionization question only to drivers who make at least 52 trips in a three-month period. Those higher-volume drivers are presumed to be more likely to support unionization.

Observers have long argued that Uber’s business model depends on very low pay for drivers. A British government report last year found that Uber drivers often took home substantially less than that country’s hourly living wage. Elsewhere, Uber has battled lawsuits over its classification of drivers as contractors rather than employees.

Even under such conditions, Uber has repeatedly posted huge operating losses. Drivers pushing for higher fares or pay rates, then, are a major threat to the company’s viability.

The entire company is losing money on every ride while also relying on poverty wages and playing with employment law to shield itself and force its low-paid drivers to bear the burden of responsibility on the job. To say the least, this company needs to die. If employment law was to cover these workers and if unions were to represent the drivers, I would have no problem with rideshare services. The problem is not that I need to defend the traditional taxi companies, which are pretty bad in their own right. The problem is that the rideshare companies won’t do such less than crazy things as “consider their workers employees” and “run background checks on the drivers” and “make sure the drivers make at least the minimum wage.” This, on top of Uber’s cozying up with Cheeto Mussolini, makes it one of the New Gilded Age’s most rapacious and awful corporations.

Labor, Environment, Neoliberalism

[ 1 ] March 16, 2017 |

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I did this podcast with the environmental historian Michael Egan last week on the relationship between environmentalism and neoliberalism. This is actual neoliberalism, not the current definition of “someone in the Democratic Party who does something I don’t like” so commonly used on the left. The whole last half is a discussion on the relationship between the labor and environmental movements. Check it out.

Labor’s Future

[ 55 ] March 10, 2017 |

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Rich Yeselson is always worth reading, agree with him or not. His long review essay of books by three former SEIU leaders, including former president Andy Stern and the activist Jane McAlevey, is quite good. Each of the three have different prognoses that represent their preexisting interests, which is not surprising. Stern, who may have started with his head on straight but was terrible in his last several years as SEIU president, is all into futurism and buddying up with corporate leaders, which is reflected in his love of Universal Basic Income, imposed from on high with no meaningful input from the unions that he now sees irrelevant. David Rolf is big on major wage campaigns such as the $15 campaign in Seattle, but he notes that these don’t actually help unions very much. He believes that unions should try anything, but try something. McAlevey disdains top-down campaigns and wants more organizing, which as Yeselson points out, has its own set of problems and which has been a call from labor reformers for a long time now, but often without much in the way of strategy behind it. There’s an emotional rallying cry against bureaucratic unionism involved in this line of thinking and it’s not one that I find particularly convincing, even though we do indeed a lot more organizing campaigns. As Yeselson also notes, some of each of these ideas is going to be necessary in the future.

What I think each of these writers misses, although I have not read the books, is that the ultimate problem of American unionism and thus the ultimate solution revolves around the position of the government. Unions have been strong in this nation when the government has allowed them to be strong. When the government has assisted employers in repressing them, through force or through law, nothing organized labor has done, whether top-down or bottom-up campaigns, has made much difference. It’s hard to read the history of American labor, for me anyway, without that as the central tenet. It’s uncomfortable for a lot of labor activists who have a lot of emotional baggage at stake in whatever their given critique is of the movement. Of course, none of this means we should sit back and wait for the government to someday be on our side again. Obviously, that means it would never happen. I agree by and large with the try anything strategy, even though I am extremely skeptical of UBI or for that matter anything Stern is involved with. Certainly McAlevey is right about the need for more organizing, but it’s not enough and it never has been.

All I can say is that movements of workers will never go away. Conditions and strategies change with the time and most certainly no one can argue that things will always get better, but at the core, we have to organize with the intent of moving politicians toward our side while also building worker power and capacity for organizing. Whatever that looks like on the ground, I am by and large for.

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